We all become a little over-enamoured by people at times. It’s a symptom of our class-based social structure. We look up to people who we feel are superior to us. But oftentimes, we can give credit to those where it isn’t warranted. When this happens, it’s can be known as the ‘Halo Effect.’ It’s cognitive thought that’s been at play for many generations. In fact, you could think of it as a form of cognitive bias. It occurs when we take a positive aspect of a person’s character and use it as confirmation for another aspect of their character of which we have no knowledge. It’s confirmation by association.
Psychologist Edward Thorndike first coined the term in the 1920s. It originates from his paper, the “Constant Error in Psychological Readings,” in which he explores the perception of character traits between men in the armed forces. The experiment involved asking commanding officers what they thought of their subordinates. They were asked to comment on qualities such as leadership, physical appearance, intelligence, loyalty, and dependability.
Thorndike’s goal was to study the correlation between each quality. He wanted to find out if there any links between the perception of how each characteristic was perceived. And there was. His study showed that high ratings of a particular quality matched up consistently with the ratings of another. It was shown that people with better physiques were almost always deemed to be more intelligent and worthy of leadership roles.
And you can see this bleed over into our society, today. You only have to look at the way we revere celebrities to see the halo effect in full action. We assume because these stars are good looking and successful, they must be great people, too. But that’s often far from being true. These are only small markers that make up the profile of someone. It doesn’t take into account anywhere near the whole picture of a person’s psyche. In fact, it doesn’t really tell us anything.
This cult of celebrity and the halo effect also extends to marketing. You might not realise it, but you’re being influenced in more ways than you might imagine. Every time you encounter a celebrity endorsement, that is the halo effect being deployed against you by savvy marketers. They know people want to adopt the same habits and lifestyle as famous people. Because the hope is that by association, their success will rub off on them. It’s marketing in its most weaponised form.
But even if you’re not one for the sponsored endorsement, there is another subtle way that the halo effect creeps into your life whether you like it or not. And that’s death. We can’t speak ill of the dead. It’s an ingrained superstition that transcends religious and non-religious divides. And rightfully so. But there is no escaping the trend that even moderately likeable souls are often venerated on their passing far beyond their virtues. Their flaws become eccentricities and deemed part of their character. The lines of objective thinking become skewed by sentimentality.
And that’s what defines the halo effect. It’s a complete loss of objective reasoning, having allowed ourselves to be overly influenced by specific character traits. The world becomes a duality of right and wrong with very set parameters of what constitutes ‘being right.’ To think that we behave this way well in the 21st century is quite astounding. And this isn’t to point the finger. It affects all of us on some level. Having respect for our deceased is one thing. But to laud those who are still alive based on such superficial characteristics as appearance? We still have some work to do in defining what makes a character and what is for all intents and purposes just a feature.